In July 2013 I went on a 10 day silent meditation retreat in Herefordshire.
I was already a regular practitioner of meditation and wanted to take it to the next level.
I’ve had many questions regarding the experience and many friends interested in doing it themselves so I’ve written this blog post to summarise it.
I have to be honest though with experiences like this it should totally be your own so it could be better to read this afterwards so you can go in there with a completely open mind.
About the Practice
The style of meditation that we were going to practice is called Vipassana meaning ‘to see things as they are’ originating in India. There are actually 2 styles of Vipassana. The style being taught at this retreat by S.N. Goenka and the other by Mahasi Sayadaw, a Burmese Monk.
It aims to purify the mind staying present and unreactive to both good and bad experiences instead of being controlled by them.
There are over 200 centres all over the world where you can go on a retreat like this. Amazingly It’s free to go on and it’s totally up to you if you want to give a donation.
S.N. Goenka who recently passed away teaches you the meditation technique using audio and video recordings. Goenka was funny , charismatic and very relaxed as he spoke. I enjoyed listening to his stories and teachings throughout the retreat.
Rules and Regulations
The rules are ‘simple’ , no forms of communication, no entertainment and no indulgences. Your phone must be locked away at the beginning of the retreat and men and women are segregated.
Basically you can only walk, eat and meditate.
It consists of meditation from 4.00 am finishing at 9pm with two main meals scheduled in between. I’ll be honest I rarely made it to the morning sessions and meditating in my room was a myth. The sittings definitely wear you down physically, mentally and emotionally.
The technique for the first three days the meditation was focused on the breath until we were introduced to the Vipassana technique on day four.
The first three days are a primer for the main technique. Respiratory awareness or Anapana meditation is used to enable you to focus on sensations in one area. The nose especially the nostrils as air is coming in and out.
On the fourth day we were taught the Vipassana technique which involves a body scan.
You move you attention from head to feet and then from feet to head continuously encountering all the different sensations on the body with complete equanimity however pleasant or unpleasant.
Goenka recommends each scan from head to feet or feet to head to last roughly 10 minutes.
This was also the start of strong determination sittings which involves keeping your body in the same position with no movement throughout the session.
This was incredibly hard with all the irritating and painful sensations that come up in your body but this was the idea to train your mind to stay balanced under any situation.
I never made it through a full hour without at least adjusting my position a little.
Some people did which I think is an amazing achievement.
What I learnt
1. Small things become beautiful
With no other forms of entertainment and without the constant rush of stimulation you have in modern day life. You appreciate things more.
The grounds we were on had some great open spaces in nature; even the bugs you would normally pay no attention to became interesting to me.
On one of the days there was a sunset which some of us practitioners watched together in silence of course and it was so beautiful. The heightened awareness made it even more so.
I feel like we have lost touch of this in modern society where we have so much stimulation that we stop noticing how much beauty there actually is around us.
2. Emotions arise
With nowhere to run and nothing to distract you. Memories with emotional attachments will come to the forefront of your mind. Many people cried in the meditation hall.
Things that you thought you had dealt with already will come up and it will be painful but you will have a huge emotional release as your forced to come to terms with them.
3. Vivid dreams
Dreams were remarkably real every night.
It was as if i was living them for real, the situations, the colours, the emotions.
The mind has nothing to do I guess so your imagination becomes more powerful and it was a real contrast in a good way to the dreams I normally have.
4. Sitting still is damn difficult
I love to move. I am a movement addict. Training and moving my body is a passion of mine and I have to do some form of that daily.
So sitting still with good posture for 10 days was difficult for me and it seemed like most people in the meditation hall handled it a lot better. I shuffled, moved my pillows around, requested more pillows, moved to the back and changed how I was sitting countless times.
Some people had resorted to sitting on a chair and in my head it was something I really wanted but I was stubborn. I wanted to do it like an ‘authentic’ monk.
5. Remember meditation is not one style fits all
Goenka style Vipassana is just one of many styles of meditation. It involves a body scan. You have the Mahasi version, mindfulness and mantra style just to name a few others.
If this meditation style doesn’t resonate with you. Try a different one.
I’m 100 percent sure that one will if you try hard enough.
I personally prefer mindfulness or Mahasi style Vipassana which is bringing your awareness back to a single point like your breath or whatever you notice in each moment.
6. Chanting might not be your thing
In my opinion it was clear to me that Vipassana was a secular practice.
Although there is chanting you listen to before and after each session in the language of Pali (the language that the ancient text of buddhism was written in ) which may be uncomfortable for some. So bare that in mind before you attend one.
I was surprised when I first heard it but it did not take anything away from my personal experience.
7. Food never tasted better
They had some of the best vegetarian/ vegan food I’ve ever had at this place.
I wasn’t really used to eating vegetarian before this retreat but I didn’t mind one bit. I had heard the food was great beforehand and it really did live up the those standards.
I’m craving some right now as I write this but not enough to go through 10 days of silence again haha.
I was also super mindful whilst eating so it tasted even better. A practice everyone should foster. To eat with no distractions.
8. You’ll find out what’s in the background of your mind everyday
Certain thoughts that I was not conscious of would become known to me as I sat in silence.
I was surprised to find out what was in my mind daily.
It wasn’t what I thought it would be for example certain song lyrics kept coming to my head which I kept replaying.
It showed me how distracted my mind really was from the now.
9. I am resilient
I never once thought that I would actually quit.
I contemplated it for sure but when I do something I need to do it properly and this has been a general theme in my life.
This has helped me stay some tough times like this retreat being consistent with my goals, getting through a Tough Mudder and backpacking on my own.
10. The only creator and cause of misery is myself
Misery is caused by the way you interpret things in your own mind.
We’re constantly judging things as good or bad and this is the cause of our suffering as they say one mans hell is another mans heaven.
Once you learn to see your minds interpretation is the cause of your suffering you can use meditation as a tool of awareness to release all judgements.
Through a 10 day meditation retreat. You get to experience impermanence on so many levels. One minute you feel like you’re in pain and the next you feel at peace.
You realise that all things come and go and this is a fundamental of life
There is no point in clinging to one thing for happiness or to try and control things to be exactly some type of way.
12. Remaining equanimous
The Vipassana technique teaches you to remain equanimous to whatever is happening.
Equanimity is to observe and feel things without harbouring attachment or aversion to it which is the root of suffering.
This means seeing things with a balanced mind so you can be proactive instead of reacting to everything that is going on.
If you can maintain this during pain and pleasure you will be a lot happier day-to-day.